Category: Human Rights

Last-Minute Budget Bill Allows New Privacy-Invading Surveillance in the Name of Cybersecurity

The Intercept, By Jenna McLaughlin, December 18

In the wake of a series of humiliating cyberattacks, the imperative in Congress and the White House to do something — anything — in the name of improving cybersecurity was powerful.

But only the most cynical observers thought the results would be this bad.

The legislation the House passed on Friday morning is a thinly disguised surveillance bill that would give companies pathways they don’t need to share user data related to cyberthreats with the government — while allowing the government to use that information for any purpose, with almost no privacy protections.

Because Speaker of the House Paul Ryan slipped the provision into the massive government omnibus spending bill that had to pass — or else the entire government would have shut down — it was doomed to become law. (This post has been updated to reflect the vote, which was 316 to 113.)
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“Emergency” Measures May Be Written Into The French Constitution

The Intercept, By Martin Untersinger, December 12

JUST HOURS INTO A TERRORIST ATTACK that started on the evening of Nov. 13, and would eventually claim 130 lives, François Hollande announced that France was reestablishing border controls, and used a 1955 law to proclaim a state of emergency.

This 60-year-old law gives French law enforcement wide and sweeping powers, freeing them from much of the normal judicial oversight. The law gives prefects, the French government’s local representatives, the ability to place people under house arrest, based merely on the suspicion of the intelligence service that they pose a threat to national security. They can also order police raids targeting any place where they think information about terrorism may be found, without a warrant.

Initially intended to last 12 days, the state of emergency was extended on November 19 for an additional three months by both chambers of parliament. During the vote in the lower house, only six MPs voted against the extension.

In some instances, the concrete consequences of the state of emergency border on the Kafkaesque. There’s this man, who was challenging the requirement that he report frequently to a police station (one of the other features of the state of emergency law). Because his court hearing to challenge the requirement was late, he showed up 40 minutes past the time he was supposed to be at the police station. He was immediately detained. Then there’s this man, who was placed under house arrest in southwestern France because he was suspected of being a radical Muslim — except he is a devout Catholic. The police also raided a halal restaurant for no apparent reason.

Since last month’s attacks, there have been some 2,500 police raids, and nearly a thousand people have been arrested or detained. French local and national press are now full of reports of questionable police raids. So outrageous were some cases that the French Interior Ministry had to send a letter to all prefects reminding them to “abide by the law.”

Saudi Arabia elects first female politicians

At least four women elected to municipal councils in Saudi Arabia’s first poll open to female voters and candidates.

Al Jazeera, December 13

At least four women have won seats in Saudi Arabia’s municipal polls, the country’s first-ever elections open to female voters and candidates, local reports said.

The female candidates were elected to three councils – two in Ihsaa governorate and one each in Tobouk and Mecca, as votes were still being counted on Sunday.

Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi was elected to the council of Madrakah, a region in Mecca, the official SPA news agency reported, citing election commission president Osama al-Bar.

Saturday’s municipal poll, which was hailed by many as historic, saw a turnout of about 25 percent, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Riyadh Saad al-Saadi reported.

The fact that this was only the third time that Saudi citizens voted in an election meant that there was still little experience with the electoral process, Saadi said. The first local election was in 2005, and the second in 2011. Women were excluded in both.

Top judge leads calls to scrap mandatory daily Christian worship in UK schools

Influential report urges end to religious assemblies and raises concern over segregation

The Guardian, By Harriet Sherwood, December 5

Schools should no longer face a legal requirement to provide daily acts of worship of a Christian character, under radical reforms being proposed by a top-level inquiry into the place of faith in multicultural Britain.

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, [organization website] led by former high court judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, also recommends curtailing the segregation of children by faith and a radical overhaul of the teaching of belief to make it more realistic and relevant in a diverse and increasingly secular country.

The weighty report is expected to set out proposals on the place of faith in the next coronation, as well as examining religion in relation to education, the criminal justice system, the media, social provision and politics. The commission’s patrons include the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and its members are drawn from all major religions in the UK.

Among its proposals is the repeal of a legal requirement for most state schools to hold daily acts of collective worship that are wholly or mainly of a Christian character. Non-Christian faith schools are permitted to choose their own form of worship. “The arguments in favour of retaining compulsory Christian worship in UK schools are no longer … convincing,” the report says, according to draft seen by the Observer. Instead the commission endorses an inclusive “time for reflection”, embracing children of all and no faiths.

[…]

“It is in our view not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not been socially divisive, leading to greater misunderstanding and tension,” the report says. “Selection by religion segregates children not only according to different religious heritage but also, frequently and in effect, by ethnicity and socio-economic background. This undermines equality of opportunity and incentivises parents to be insincere about their religious affiliation and practice.”

The report is to be published December 7th, a day which will live in Infamy.

Advocates: Supreme Court Ruling in Favor of Dollar General ‘Will Be an Attack on Tribal Sovereignty’

RH Reality Check, By Kanya D’Almeida, December 4

The Supreme Court on December 7 will hear oral arguments in a case involving a multi-billion dollar company and a Native American minor, who claims he was sexually assaulted by a store manager on Mississippi tribal lands in the summer of 2003.

While the case is ostensibly a challenge to tribes’ ability to adjudicate civil claims involving non-Natives—in this particular instance, a corporation whose store manager is accused of repeated sexual assaults of a then 13-year-old boy—legal experts say it goes to the very heart of tribal sovereignty, established via decades of settled law.

Women’s rights organizations are particularly concerned that a favorable ruling for the company could peel away the last remaining layer of legal protection that enables Native women to seek justice for sexual violence perpetrated by non-members in tribal courts.

Mexico Supreme Court rules pot use is constitutional right

Landmark decision legalizes recreational use for marijuana club members only; move likely to force legislative action.

Al Jazeera, By Alfonso Serrano, November 4

Smoking marijuana is a basic human right. That extraordinary argument swayed Mexico’s Supreme Court on Wednesday, when it ruled that a federal health law prohibiting cannabis cultivation and personal use violates the constitution — an unprecedented decision that may trigger similar court appeals and pressure the country’s congress to weigh widespread legalization of the drug.

In a landmark interpretation of drug laws widely blamed for violence that has claimed thousands of lives in Mexico, a panel of five judges ruled in favor of a nonprofit marijuana club — the Mexican Society for Responsible and Tolerant Autoconsumption, or SMART — which argued that the health law violates the right to the “free development of one’s personality.” In essence, SMART lawyers successfully claimed that the constitution allows individuals the autonomy to experiment with the effects of cannabis despite the potential dangers the practice entails.

The 4-1 ruling followed an injunction filed by SMART against a 2013 ruling by Mexico’s health regulator that prohibited the organization from cultivating and consuming cannabis for recreational purposes.

“It’s a historic ruling because it centers the drug policy discussion on human rights, because it declares that prohibitions concerning personal use and cultivation are excessive,” said Lisa Sánchez, Latin America program manager for U.K.-based the nonprofit Transform Drug Policy Foundation. “This is a very important step. It not only gives us jurisprudence. It demonstrates an incoherence between the country’s most qualified jurists and congressional legislation. This should have an effect on Congress to reform [drug] policy as soon as possible.”

China to end decades-old one-child policy, bowing to demographic strain

Policy shift, which comes after family planning restrictions were eased in 2013, will allow couples to have two children.

Al Jazeera, October 29

China will ease family planning restrictions to allow all couples to have two children, ending the country’s decades-long one-child policy in a move to alleviate the looming demographic strain on the labor market.

The decision, announced by the ruling Communist Party, is a major liberalization of the country’s family planning restrictions, but follows months of rumors of a policy change. It also comes after the one-child rule was eased in late 2013, with Beijing saying then that it would allow more families to have two children providing that at least one parent was an only child.

“China will allow all couples to have two children, abandoning its decades-long one-child policy,” the official Xinhua new agency said in a short report.

The decision was contained in a Communist Party communiqué that followed a meeting of the party’s Central Committee on planning the country’s economic and social development through 2020.

Senate passes controversial cybersecurity bill Cisa 74 to 21

Senate votes in favor of bill critics including Edward Snowden say will allow the government to collect sensitive personal data unchecked

The Guardian, By Sam Thielman, October 27

The US Senate overwhelmingly passed a controversial cybersecurity bill critics say will allow the government to collect sensitive personal data unchecked, over the objections of civil liberties groups and many of the biggest names in the tech sector.

The vote on Tuesday was 74 to 21 in support of the legislation. Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders voted against the bill. None of the Republican presidential candidates (except Lindsey Graham, who voted in favor) were present to cast a vote, including Rand Paul, who has made privacy from surveillance a major plank of his campaign platform.

Ahead of the vote a group of university professors specializing in tech law, many from the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy, sent an open letter to the Senate, urging them not to pass the bill. The bill, they wrote, would fatally undermine the Freedom of Information Act (Foia).
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A Philosopher Looks at the Syrian Refugee Issue

One of my favorite blogs is Justin Smith. He’s always worth reading but this is particularly good.

One of the memes circling around the French Internet shows the mayor of the town of Roanne telling a huddled group of refugees that they cannot stay, since they are not Christian. “Neither are you,” is the reply.

Yes, some people are so ignorant as to believe that all Syrians are Muslims, but the most relevant clarification is not that some are not, but that that is irrelevant to the refugee crisis.

At the popular level in Europe, there is both dispiriting xenophobia and its opposite, a seemingly unprecedented preparedness to welcome the refugees and to take responsibility for their well-being. State officials have so far tended to play to the interests of the xenophobes, mostly not by expressing outward xenophobia (with plenty of exceptions of course, as with the mayor of Roanne, or with Hungarian president Viktor Orbán), but by classic buck-passing, insisting that the crisis is someone else’s problem. This is particularly the case for the poorer countries of the EU to its south and east, which are of course also the countries that are so placed as to first receive the refugees travelling by land (and, more perilously, by water). The absence of any obvious authority, either at the union-wide level or in each individual member state, reveals, like no other situation has since the EU’s expansion to include former Soviet Bloc states, that transnational body’s utter impotence and irrelevance.

American liberals and progressives love to fawn over the great liberal democracies of northern Europe with their advanced welfare states and their commitment to fair distribution of resources to all citizens. Yet as long as these societies continue to adhere to a sharp political and moral distinction between citizens and outsiders, between those who are in the system and those who are outside of it, what they have accomplished is scarcely any more worthy of praise than the sort of ‘socialism’ we see practiced within major corporations. European social democracies that extend medical care and education to everyone who has theirpapers in order, while expelling irregular migrants in nighttime raids and strong-armed police operations, are not truly egalitarian societies, but protection rackets. The extent that European citizens are today, en masse, resisting this arbitrary distinction between citizen and non-citizen, in order to come to the direct aid of the Syrian refugees, is precisely the extent to which Europe is living up to its claim to be Christian.

El Salvador: Home of the world’s strictest anti-abortion law

The Globe & Mail, By Stephanie Nolen, September 18

San Salvador – It’s been nearly a year since Myrna Ramirez walked out of jail for the last time, but she still can’t quite believe she is free. She can’t believe, in fact, any of it: that she served nearly 13 years in jail for attempted murder, that she nearly bled to death in police custody, that she missed her daughter’s childhood – all because she went into premature labour at home one night, asked a neighbour for help, and that neighbour reported her to authorities for attempting to terminate a pregnancy.

She joined a prison wing full of women who ran afoul of El Salvador’s abortion law, perhaps the most restrictive in the world. “It’s like some kind of nightmare,” Ms. Ramirez says.

In 1998, after the civil war, El Salvador adopted a new law that outlawed abortion in all circumstances. Unlike the law it replaced, there are no exceptions for cases of rape, severe fetal abnormalities or threat to the mother’s life from pregnancy. Only six other countries in the world, all in Latin America and the Caribbean, have similarly prohibitive laws; in one, Chile, the President is pushing an easing of the law to allow abortion in some situations.

El Salvador, however, has the most active enforcement of its abortion law. Here authorities investigate and prosecute women whose pregnancies end before 40 weeks in what may be miscarriages or stillbirths or preterm labours, such as Ms. Ramirez’s. Judges have sentenced women convicted of terminating pregnancies to prison terms of up to 40 years.

After Freddie Gray

The Kingsley decision creates a crucial new constitutional protection against police abuse.

Slate, By Mark Joseph Stern, June 22

In April of 2010, five police officers put Michael Kingsley face down on a cement bunk in a holding cell, shocked him with a stun gun for five seconds, then left him alone, writhing in pain with his hands cuffed behind his back, for 15 minutes. Kingsley sued the officers, claiming they violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force. He lost.

On Monday, the Supreme Court gave Kingsley a second chance, ruling that the trial court gave the jury bad instructions. In a narrow sense, the decision turns on a technical question of intent. In a broader sense, though, the ruling is a blast of good news for opponents of police brutality—an emphatic declaration that the Constitution bars police from beating and abusing suspects in custody.

At the heart of Kingsley v. Hendrickson is a pretty straightforward question of intent. During the trial, the judge told the jury that Kingsley must lose unless he could prove the officers knew their actions could unduly harm Kingsley but went through with them anyway. Under that high standard, Kingsley lost. It’s incredibly difficult to prove law enforcement intentionally deprived suspects of their constitutional rights. Just ask the family of Michael Brown.

But Kingsley argued that he shouldn’t have to prove the officers were subjectively aware that their use of force was unreasonable. By forcing him to convince a jury that the officers had a malicious state of mind, Kingsley believed, the court made him clear too high a hurdle to vindicate his constitutional rights. Rather, Kingsley insisted that he should only have to prove that their use of force was objectively unreasonable to win his suit.

A bare majority of the Supreme Court agreed with Kingsley, sending the case back down to an appeals court to decide whether the error was so grave that Kingsley must be given a new trial. The dry majority opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer barely hints that the decision will have an impact beyond Kingsley’s case. But in reality, Kingsley constructs a crucial new constitutional protection against police abuse—a protection especially vital in the shadow of Freddie Gray’s shocking death.

Obama’s fast-track trade bill poised to clear final Senate hurdles

Los Angeles Times, By Lisa Mascaro, June 22

President Obama’s fast-track trade bill is poised to clear a procedural hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, all but ensuring it will win final passage this week and be sent to the White House for his signature.

Despite deep reservations from many in the president’s party, enough Democratic senators appear ready to join most Republicans to finish the legislation, which has sputtered in Congress but is a top White House priority.

“With just a little more trust, a little more cooperation, and simply voting consistently, we’ll get there,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday. “We shouldn’t let this opportunity for significant bipartisan achievement slip past us.”

[…]

Fast-track, or trade promotion authority, would allow the president to assure potential trade partners that the deals they negotiate with the U.S. will be presented to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendment.

The administration is wrapping up talks on the emerging 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest deal of its kind, and fast-track authority would cover it and future pacts for the next president.

Fourteen Senate Democrats voted for the fast-track bill last month as part of a broader package that also included funding to continue a worker retraining program for employees who lose their jobs to overseas trade.

But their support is no longer guaranteed after the worker retraining legislation was split off by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who faced resistance from Republicans who view the Trade Adjustment Assistance program as government waste.

Harpers: Nonsense Brokers, June 12

Meet the Gay Mormon Men (and Their Wives) Beseeching SCOTUS to Save ‘Traditional’ Marriage

TPM, By James Ross Gardner, June 17

We were in the basement, a shirtless Jim Morrison looming on the wall behind me, when Erin Caldwell’s naked foot snaked under her husband Danny’s leg. Her toes, one adorned with a ring, coiled around his thigh and hooked in to nest behind his knee.

Hardly a salacious gesture, not even for a conservative American family like the Caldwells. Except that Danny wants to have sex with men. “Want” isn’t the term he’d use; it’s more like his body desires it. His heart? He insists it belongs to Erin. Yet lately, “Horrible, horrible things have been said. Just a lot of stuff online,” he told me. “That our marriage is a sham. That I’m just sleeping around on the side, and that I’m not really in love with her…they’ve called her ‘a fag hag.’”

Erin flinched at those words. Fag. Hag. Two jagged syllables that seemed to gouge at her chest.

Six weeks earlier, in April of this year, the Caldwells declared their unusual marriage in the form of an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of the United States, which they cosigned with 19 other people, nearly all members of the Mormon church. Submitted in advance of the court’s oral arguments, the brief contests the constitutional legalization of gay marriage. Its signees, or amici, all hail from “mixed-orientation” marriages: same-sex-attracted men married to straight women.

With Little Fanfare, Mexican Supreme Court Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

New York Times, By Randcal C. Archibold * Pauline Villegas, June 14

Mexico City – His church turned him away, his family discouraged him from a public fight and the government of the state where he lives vowed it would never happen.

But it did. Hiram Gonzalez married his boyfriend, Severiano Chavez, last year in the northern state of Chihuahua, which, like most Mexican states, technically allows marriage only between a man and a woman.

Mr. Gonzalez and dozens of other gay couples in recent months have, however, found a powerful ally: Mexico’s Supreme Court.

In ruling after ruling, the court has said that state laws restricting marriage to heterosexuals are discriminatory. Though the decisions have been made to little public fanfare, they have had the effect of legalizing gay marriage in Mexico without enshrining it in law.

The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The New Yorker, By Maria Konnikova, June 12

On the morning of August 17, 1971, nine young men in the Palo Alto area received visits from local police officers. While their neighbors looked on, the men were arrested for violating Penal Codes 211 and 459 (armed robbery and burglary), searched, handcuffed, and led into the rear of a waiting police car. The cars took them to a Palo Alto police station, where the men were booked, fingerprinted, moved to a holding cell, and blindfolded. Finally, they were transported to the Stanford County Prison—also known as the Stanford University psychology department.

They were willing participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the most controversial studies in the history of social psychology. (It’s the subject of a new film of the same name—a drama, not a documentary—starring Billy Crudup, of “Almost Famous,” as the lead investigator, Philip Zimbardo.) The study subjects, middle-class college students, had answered a questionnaire about their family backgrounds, physical- and mental-health histories, and social behavior, and had been deemed “normal”; a coin flip divided them into prisoners and guards. According to the lore that’s grown up around the experiment, the guards, with little to no instruction, began humiliating and psychologically abusing the prisoners within twenty-four hours of the study’s start. The prisoners, in turn, became submissive and depersonalized, taking the abuse and saying little in protest. The behavior of all involved was so extreme that the experiment, which was meant to last two weeks, was terminated after six days.